The Fight to Free Our Elders

Mid-day on September 30, 2021, community members and lawmakers gathered outside of Philadelphia City Hall around the 12-foot bronze Octavius Catto statue for a press conference to gather support for the newly introduced Senate Bill 835 that would establish geriatric and medical parole in Pennsylvania. Several movement partners came together to host the event, namely Straight Ahead, the Abolitionist Law Center, the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, the Human Rights Coalition, the Amistad Law Project, and the Public Defenders Association. 

The location held great symbolic significance for the day’s event. The statue commemorates the life of Octavius Catto, a 19th Century African American abolitionist, athlete, and educator. Catto fought fearlessly to desegregate the city’s trolleys and to pass the 15th Amendment to expand voting rights to people regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

On October 10, 1871, 32-year-old Catto was shot and killed in the street by a white man, Frank Kelly, on the eve of Election Day. Catto died the day before he would have had the right to vote for the first time, due to the ratification of the amendment he fought so tirelessly to pass. Despite the “overwhelming evidence” proving Kelly committed the murder, an all-white jury acquitted him.

Today, 150 years later, our courts and legal system remain mired in the hate, racism, and disinformation that allowed Catto’s murderer to walk free. We see this injustice manifest in the several thousands of aging people sentenced to die in prison in this state alone, most of whom are Black and most of whom have transformed their lives. 

This particular fall gathering in front of City Hall amplified the voices of legislators and directly impacted family members, urgently calling for the passage of Senate Bill 835. This legislation would grant parole eligibility for elders 55 years and older who have served either 25 years or half of their sentence, as well as people plagued with terminal or chronic illness. 

Senator Anthony Williams speaks out in support of SB835 at the press conference.

Senator Sharif Street, the sponsor of SB835, opened up the press conference emphasizing the “common sense” behind this legislation. “Those who are elderly or sick pose a risk that is less than the general population of recidivating. Yet, they are the most expensive people to continue incarcerating.” Even the Department of Corrections and law enforcement groups support the bill, he said.

Street passed the mic to Senator Anthony Williams of the PA General Assembly, who unabashedly condemned the growing number of elders locked in cages. “If we don’t recognize the dignity of those who have aged, paid their price, and return them to society, then we really don’t have a justice system. We have a revenge system! We have a toxic system!”

Marcie Marra then took the podium and shared her struggle, as the sister of a 58-year-old serving a life sentence. Through his 34 years of incarceration, Marcie said that her brother Richie has “not been in so much as a fist fight since that fateful night in 1986.” She spelled out his lengthy list of accomplishments during that time, including earning a business degree, becoming an educator and mentor, and managing the audio/visual program at SCI Chester. Marcie asked the crowd, “Who are we punishing? That 22-year-old boy my brother was or that 58-year-old good man that he’s become? What about the 18-year-old girl or the 18-year-old boy who are now 60 and 70 years old? Releasing them won’t erase their punishment or their decades of incarceration. Neither will more punishment decrease the victim’s suffering.”

Marcie Marra addresses the crowd against the backdrop of her brother Richie’s photo from the beginning of his incarceration in 1987 juxtaposed with a photo of him still incarcerated in 2020.

Threads of transformation weaved together many of the stories shared that day. Martha Williams, whose son has been sentenced to die by incarceration, read a letter written by Marthea Brown’s incarcerated brother. The letter detailed the story of 77-year-old Daniel Williams, who has been incarcerated for nearly 50 years. Now suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cataracts, blindness in one eye, shortness of breath, memory lapses, intense numbness in his hands and feet, and immobility without a wheelchair, Williams has not had one misconduct in 47 years. Yet, he remains sentenced to die in prison.

The author of the letter made a key point, often missed in discussions of geriatric parole: “An aging out bill is not an automatic get out of jail bill. It’s not a free ticket. It’s a process. An applicant would have to meet a certain criteria…Also, statistically speaking, most applicants would be denied parole or release on their first and second appeal for parole.”

John Thompson, a former juvenile lifer and organizer with the Abolitionist Law Center, echoed the practicality and urgency of the bill. “We’re not advocating to just throw the doors open and let everyone out,” he said. “You have to earn this. You have to show that you have been rehabilitated. That you have remorse. That you deserve a second opportunity…We have men and women in prison who are dying.”

Yvonne Newkirk, an organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and the mother of an incarcerated woman, shared with the audience that her brother died of the coronavirus in prison on December 11. He would have been 61 years old. If SB835 had been law, her brother would have had the opportunity for release and may still be alive today. 

As the event closed out, the crowd chanted “Welcome Home” after each name of an incarcerated elder was uplifted and their photos were hung upon a banner that read: “Free Our People.” 

And so, the fight to free our elders continues and the movement to end death by incarceration carries forth the power of Octavius Catto’s words etched into his statue: “There must come a change which shall force upon this nation that course which providence seems wisely to be directing for the mutual benefit of peoples.”

Martha, whose son Damir is serving a death by incarceration sentence, hangs a poster on the “Free Our People” banner.

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